Some say our destiny is written in stone. Others believe we craft our own future. For The Little Mermaid star Halle Bailey, her remarkable path from child phenom to Hollywood actress might be the result of both.
On May 26, the actress and singer-songwriter is set to make her big-screen debut as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic. It’s a role some might not have anticipated for a performer like Bailey—a young Black woman with natural long, flowing locs—but one that she was, without a doubt, destined to play.
“I just feel like this is all a part of God’s plan for me,” Bailey tells EBONY.
The Little Mermaid is the story of a beautiful mermaid, Ariel—the youngest daughter of King Triton—who longs to learn more about the world beyond the sea. She ends up falling in love with a handsome prince, and she makes a deal with an evil sea witch so she can experience life on land. However, Ariel ends up placing her life and her father’s kingdom in jeopardy. The Disney film is an exploration of living life between two worlds, and the misunderstandings others have about each of them—something to which Bailey can completely relate.
It’s a little after 5:30 p.m. in Los Angeles, where Bailey is calling from. She’s in the car, presumably on her way to yet another meeting or rehearsal. With all that’s going on in her life—from the upcoming movie premiere to working on new music and starring in a remake of The Color Purple, set to be released at the end of the year—it would be easy to assume Bailey might be feeling a little overwhelmed. However, the past few years have been a time of evolution for the star, one that’s left her feeling unstoppable in many regards.
Growing up in the entertainment industry can be difficult. When young performers are forced to mature early, they’re often left feeling robbed of their childhood and might yearn for it well into adulthood. But despite having covered Beyoncé songs on YouTube alongside her sister, Chlöe, and having landed a few small TV roles, all before becoming a teenager, the 23-year-old Halle realizes she was one of the lucky ones: She got to live out her dreams and still be a kid.
“I HAD ALWAYS BEEN SHIELDED BY MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY. ‘THE LITTLE MERMAID’ IS THE FIRST THING I DID ON MY OWN. SUDDENLY I WAS IN LONDON, AND I WAS BY MYSELF. IT REALLY FORCED ME TO GROW UP.”
“I had always been shielded by my friends and my family,” Bailey shares. “They’d always protect me and put this fort around me.”
However, this also meant the star had yet to really carve out her own path, on her own terms. But the opportunity to star in The Little Mermaid, which began filming in early 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, unexpectedly gave her the chance to have full autonomy over the next phase of her journey.
“It was the first thing I did by myself, independently,” reveals Bailey. “I had to move across [the world]. Suddenly I was in London, and I was by myself. It really forced me to grow up.”
Without her family physically by her side during one of the most unsettling times in recent history, Bailey easily could have cowered and retreated back to the U.S. But she knew there was a reason she had been chosen to play Ariel. So she opted to stay put and embrace the challenge, and she looked to her big sister, Chlöe, who was also stepping out on her own that year, as a solo musician, for direction on coming into her own.
“[My sister’s] guidance, and her amazing ability to just be herself and not be scared or afraid, was the best example that I could have had,” Halle says.
This was all she needed to let go of fear and self-doubt when it came to embracing what was about to come: a new level of stardom. “I had to really snap myself into shape and be like, Okay, Halle, you actually can do this on your own,” the star shares.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Long days on set (many of which were spent in a water tank), hours of hair and makeup, and running to and from various locations across London and Italy can be exhausting—and enough to push any newcomer past their limit.
“I’ve always been a bit shy and awkward. [My sister Chloe’s] guidance, and ability to just be herself and not be afraid was the best example I could have had.”
“It was important for me to have my natural hair in this film. I’ve had my locs since I was five so it’s a huge part of who I am.”
Halle wears a Gucci gown and Rinaldy Yunari earrings. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
“The whole filming experience was insane. It was the most intense, excruciatingly beautiful experience of my life. I mean, physically, mentally—all of the above,” the actress admits. “But once I got through it, I was like, wow. [I was] really impressed with myself, because I’d never done something like that before.”
The funny thing is, whether or not she realized it at the time, Bailey had been preparing for this role her whole life. And now it’s time for the rest of the world to bear witness to her next chapter.
EBONY: You grew up swimming and loving the water—sometimes even pretending to be Ariel as you were playing in the pool. Did you ever reflect on those moments as you were filming and thought it was kismet?
Halle Bailey: My sister and I would always play mermaid in the pool. [But what’s funny was,] our first mixtape was called “The Two of Us”—I think we put it out when I was 15 or something —and on the cover of it I’m wearing my favorite mermaid blanket; it’s like a mermaid tail. Looking back, I’m like, that’s so weird. In a way, it was a coincidence. But really, it was the universe or God [giving me] a hint.
Both you and Brandy have made history as Black Disney princesses. Did you study her career and portrayal of Cinderella as you were preparing to film?
Absolutely. I remember [Brandy’s 1997 movie, Cinderella] was one of the first [films] I saw with a Black princess. It was so monumental. It changes your whole perspective as a young Black woman, how you feel about yourself, what you think you can do, and the possibilities the world has to offer. She’s the blueprint for all of the Black princesses to come.
Let’s talk about your own professional evolution: You’ve gone from child star to Hollywood sensation. What was one major high and one major low along the journey, and what lesson did you learn from each instance?
I think one major high would definitely be when my sister and I were nominated for Grammys. We sang “Where Is the Love,” by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, and that was actually the performance that got me noticed by Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall. It was confirmation for me that my own abilities and belief in myself [is enough]. It was always other people telling me, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’ But recently, especially after I finished filming, I finally felt that within myself. I believed in myself for the first time.
“Brandy in the role of Cinderella was one of the first films where I saw a Black princess. It was monumental. She’s the blueprint for all of the Black princesses to come.”
The lowest—which I guess really isn’t that low—is being in the public eye and having so many comments [thrown at you] on what people think you should be or should do or who you should surround yourself with. I think sometimes when you’re in the public eye from such a young age, people forget that you’re human. They forget that comments about your life can hurt your feelings. But I have to shift my focus off of other people’s opinions—and the naysayers, and the noise—and just silence it. I realized that when I step away from that, I feel 100% better about myself.
But it can’t be easy to deal with people saying things about you that are completely untrue.
It’s been a really big, beautiful lesson for me in terms of patience. I have had to learn how to control myself, and to control my tongue. As a human, when you see people say these things about you, immediately you want to defend yourself. But I’ve just had to realize that it doesn’t matter. This position that I’m in, this movie, this role, is way bigger than me. The impact it’s going to have on future generations and our generation now is just so important. It’s making a lot of people proud. That overshadows all of the negativity that might be out there.
Very true. Do you think Black Ariel is something you needed to see as a child?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But what I love about today [is that it’s normalized]. Somebody told me the other day, “[This generation of kids are] not even going to know the first version [of The Little Mermaid]. Their version of Ariel is you.”
I also love that there’s so much Black diversity on-screen now. There was a time when we’d barely see locs—and now we have a Disney princess with them, which has never happened before.
It was super important for me to have my natural hair in this film. I was really grateful to Rob Marshall, because he wanted to keep my locs. It’s always important to have somebody to cosign. I’ve had my locs since I was 5, so they’re a huge part of who I am. We need to be able to see ourselves, we need to be able to see our hair on big screens like this, so that we know that it’s beautiful and more than acceptable.
“This movie is way bigger than me. The impact it will have on future generations is so important.”
Halle wears an Atelier Ndigo top and Martyre jewelry. Image: Keith Major for EBONY Media.
Let’s talk about what’s coming up for you. Aside from The Little Mermaid, you’re going to be playing Nettie in The Color Purple. What can you tell me about the project?
I am so excited to be playing young Nettie in The Color Purple. This film has meant a lot to me for a very long time—it’s a Black family staple. I also got a chance to write an original song for the film. It’s been really cool to incorporate my artistry into this new world of acting. I’m just so grateful to be a part of the film, and to be on set with legends and people I’m such fans of, like Fantasia and Taraji P. Henson. I cannot wait for people to see it. I think they’ll love it.
I love that you’re getting to flex different creative muscles. For a long time, we were all told to stay in our lane, but people are really embracing being multi-hyphenates these days. What helps you lean into exploring your many talents?
I love to do whatever makes me feel good, and to learn and grow in my artistry. As a creative person, you can [have several outlets], whether it’s painting or singing or acting. Now that acting has become this thing for me, it’s very therapeutic. I’m learning a lot about myself through the characters I’m playing, even with Nettie. She’s a very headstrong individual, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. I end up trying to adopt these characteristics and incorporate them into who I am as a young woman. I’m 23 now, and I still feel like I’m learning [who I am] every single day.
You’ve got a lot going on. Are you ever able to embrace moments of stillness and slowness?
Absolutely, yeah. I find that I love to just be quiet [sometimes]. I’ve never had a problem with being able to take a break and step away. I find that it’s essential to my growth as an individual. When I travel or I go somewhere, I just go in the ocean and do things like that. I love Hawaii so much; it’s just so dreamy, and the nature is amazing. I have to refuel myself, especially in this industry. If you go, go, go, it can sometimes be unhealthy.
Your life is a whirlwind right now, but have you taken a moment to realize the impact The Little Mermaid is going to have on your career?
I don’t really think so. [Laughs] It’s funny, because my sister will tell you that out of [everyone in] my family, I’ve always been very shy and a bit more awkward. Being on my own and having all of these eyes on me for this movie has really been an interesting experience. It’s been exciting, and I am grateful for the praise that I do get. But at the same time, it’s also just a weird thing [to be experiencing]. There are moments when I realize what’s going on; I think I’m still learning how to digest it all. But I try not to let any of this get to me, because none of it really matters. At the end of the day, what matters is that you lead with love and a good heart. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
Kayla Greaves (@kaylaagreaves), is an award-winning journalist, multi-hyphenate creative, and former Executive Beauty Editor at InStyle. With over a decade of media experience, she’s done everything from interviewing your favorite stars to partnering with some of the biggest beauty brands in the world.
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN
PHOTO DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
ASSOC. CREATIVE DIRECTOR/HEAD OF VIDEO STEVEN CORNELIO
VIDEO BY MEGA MEDIA
DIRECTOR GERRAD WILSON
DP ANDREW FAIRBANK
VIDEO PRODUCER ERIC DAVIS
SOUND MIXER KEVIN BAZELL
LIGHTING TECH COLIN JACOB
PHOTO ASSISTANTS ZACK HUGHES, DAVID GUTIERREZ
DIGITAL TECH PHOEBE SOLOMON
BTS PHOTOGRAPHER RUTHILLEA JAXON
STYLIST NICHOLE GOODMAN
STYLIST ASSISTANTS LOUIS JOHNSON, CLEMENCE AMIA
TAILOR TERRY TOCCI
HAIR STYLIST TINISHA MEEKS
MAKEUP ARTIST CHRISTIANA CASSELL
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
ON-SET PRODUCER SUZE LEE
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS APU GOMES, KAREN SOTO
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